I Hated the ABC 20/20 Piece on Siegfried & Roy
We had high hopes for what was marketed as an investigative piece about Siegfried & Roy. We hoped it would not only expose their lies about white tigers but also the other animal welfare issues inherent in these kinds of acts including the training techniques. Instead it turned out to be a shallow tribute to Siegfried & Roy aggrandizing their exploitation of big cats as an “accomplishment.”
It is fine to give Siegfried & Roy credit for being remarkable showmen and marketers who changed Las Vegas and produced the most popular show of all time and lived the American dream of poor immigrants achieving fame and fortune. But, they should be exposed for doing it on the backs of inbred animals and misery they have caused to so many other animals by being the catalyst for rampant breeding to create white tigers.
It was two hours of playing the same glitzy scenes, in some cases over and over and over. Only a minute was spent in the first hour mentioning that there may be some controversy about breeding white tigers. In the last 15 minutes of the show they spent a few minutes interviewing Emily McCormack from Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, and a woman I’ve never heard of, to explain why breeding white tigers is genetically bad. Those two did a very good job in the few minutes they were given. But ABC spent five hours filming at that sanctuary talking about many of the issues listed below and they were led to believe that the second hour of the show would include much more about these issues.
ABC used Dave Salmoni, a tiger trainer who brings young animals onto talk shows and lies about their source and where they end up, as their “expert.” Instead of showing scenes of Roy kissing and riding tigers over and over and tigers lounging on the grounds and pools and the allegedly idyllic life at Magic Garden, they could have interviewed real experts (not me) about what life is really like for these animals, many of whom reportedly spend most of their time in a warehouse.
The key parts 20/20 left out include the following dozen issues, would have made for a meaningful investigative piece, instead of a fluffy aggrandizement of exploiting animals:
Siegfried said they continued to breed white tigers until 2015 even though the show was permanently cancelled in 2003. Why?
The show said they have 52 tigers on 7 acres called the Magic Garden. Only about 5 were shown. Why didn’t they get to see inside the warehouse where insiders say the tigers are stockpiled in barren cages? Siegfried and Roy owe their fame and fortune to those cats. What do the cats have to show for their sacrifices?
They could only use young cats in their shows, which started in 1981. By the time a tiger becomes a mature adult at five or so they are unlikely to do the things these cats were forced to do. So they would need four new sets of tigers from 1981-2003. The famous tiger act performer, Mabel Stark, reportedly said it takes 50 cats to get one that will perform reliably. Whether it was 50 or not, it is not the nature of cats to perform and highly likely that many born would not perform. Where did all of those, and all the performing tigers who aged out after a few years, go?
Not one bit of evidence was shown as to how the cats were trained. Even though the cats in the clips had slip (choke) collars that were being very visibly yanked by Siegfried and Roy to force the cat to their pose, no one ever said, “Hey, slow that clip down and see how he choked that snow leopard into submission.” Just like their sleight of hand, it was quick and nearly imperceptible except to someone who knows what to look for and actually cares about what the animal was experiencing.
No big cat performs reliably based upon reward methods. No one spoke to that well known fact. The only way they could have made the cats do these tricks was by being far scarier to the cats than all of that noise and crowd around them. For most trainers that means physically punishing the cats to train them.
They showed the “tigers living in the mansion” nonsense but failed to realize the fact that it would have looked just like the inside of Joe Schriebvogel’s urine soaked house if they had. Tigers tear up stuff for fun. They do not ask to go out to pee and poop like dogs. And they pee and poop enormous amounts! This just perpetuated the myth that people can make pets out of big cats.
I never knew they took cubs into the audience to allow petting. This was a huge, missed opportunity to talk about how Siegfried and Roy were likely the primary reason for so much abuse involving the pay to play trade in cubs and especially white cubs. Only a select few in that audience got to do it, but probably everyone in that crowd wanted to do it. That made it easy for Kevin Antle, Joe Schreibvogel and others to fill that demand with rampant breeding of cubs for petting.
There are so many backyard breeders like Dennis Hill who would have happily blathered on for hours about how much they were dazzled by Siegfried and Roy and how they inbred cats more and more severely to try and match those stripeless white cats on stage or to be a seller to Siegfried and Roy. This was another missed opportunity, i.e. to show how calling them Royal White Bengal Tigers fueled the backyard inbreeding, exploiting and discarding of “throw away” tigers.
While Kenneth Feld was on screen, there was very little said about the fact that Siegfried and Roy were owned by Feld Entertainment, the owners of the now defunct Ringling Brothers circus that similarly exploited big cats. There was no mention of the fact that some of their cast off golden tigers ended up in the circus and being forced to travel 11 months of the year in circus wagons and forced to do tricks for crowds who had no idea about the dark side of circus life until recent years.
I was glad they mentioned the AZA crackdown on breeding white tigers. It should be noted that as far back as 1983 experts inside the AZA were speaking out against it. This had little impact in the face of the fame brought to the notion of “Royal White Bengal Tigers” that fueled the inbreeding. It was not until 2009 that AZA put out a formal notice to its zoos that they should stop breeding white tigers due to the genetic issues including the severe birth defects. The policy had more impact when in 2011 when AZA increased enforcement by not letting zoos that bred white tigers participate in their Species Survival Plans for breeding purebred tigers. Given the number of tigers Siegfried and Roy had to be churning out, they had to know the deleterious effects of their inbreeding. Instead, what we got on the show was Siegfried saying they were selective in their breeding and never had a problem.
They showed Roy’s birthday party the night before. But no connection was made with whether this “partying” the night before might have played a role in Roy’s performance and judgment, such as the suggestion in the program that Roy did not follow normal procedure when the cat missed its mark on stage.
ABC mentioned they could not get the tape of the incident, which would have likely revealed the truth about Roy’s fall. But they never questioned why the casino would not reveal it – why NOT reveal the truth. Because it would conflict with the hardly credible claim that Roy had his stroke before the attack? And did they ask to see where the rest of the cats are kept, and point out if they were denied access and ask why? They may not have been able to get film of Roy’s training although it is hard to believe it does not exist. But there is film and people who can speak credibly about the training generally in the industry. What about asking for records of what cats were bred to which to prove or disprove the alleged “selective” breeding?
This was a huge missed opportunity to do real investigative reporting that would have served a very meaningful purpose and potentially positively impacted many animals (and saved performers from injury) by giving Siegfried & Roy their due for their showmanship and impact on Las Vegas while convincing the viewer that such tiger acts are an anachronism that should go the way of carnival freaks, i.e. be relegated to history as entertainment from a time when we did not know better.